School & District Management

Rural Schools Grow Leaders to Suit Needs

By Mary Schulken — August 10, 2010 9 min read
Albert Bryant, an education major at Drury University, sits in the mostly-empty downtown of Everton, Mo., where he grew up. Mr. Bryant, who is part of the Ozarks Teacher Corps program, plans to return to a rural school like the one he attended in Everton.
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Faced with state and federal mandates to reverse the course of failing rural schools—in some cases, by replacing teachers and principals—districts and researchers say just finding bodies for empty spots is no longer enough.

Increasingly, money and attention are turning toward programs that hand-pick promising rural teaching candidates and school leaders and equip them to thrive in a geographically isolated environment where resources are limited, poverty can be high, and academic achievement often lags.

“It’s difficult when you have low-performing schools for folks to want to go there unless you are confident you have the skills to turn them around,” said Bonnie Fusarelli, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.

Amid high stakes for rural districts as part of a national push to turn around low-performing schools, initiatives aimed at high-quality homegrown talent have emerged across the country. For example:

• In the Ozarks, a teacher corps under the auspices of a regional nonprofit offers scholarships to rural Missouri college students who will return to their hometowns as teachers and school leaders;

• The University of South Dakota has redesigned its teacher-preparation programs to include a rural-teaching track; and

• A leadership academy at a North Carolina university targets veteran teachers in a corridor of low-performing school districts and prepares them to serve as principals who can turn around that record.

Masking Deeper Needs

Rural schools have long struggled to recruit talent, researchers say, especially small, remote schools and low-performing schools in high-poverty communities.

“Rural schools, on average, face higher concentrations of the challenges that make schools more difficult to staff than do their counterparts in other locales,” said Jerry Johnson, the research director for the Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Va., that tracks issues and developments in rural education.

On the surface, numbers from the National Center for Educational Statistics show little variance in teacher-attrition rates between rural and nonrural schools. Yet buried in those national data, Mr. Johnson said, are acute staffing shortages in districts serving bands of poverty scattered throughout the United States.

Among the areas most affected: the Mississippi Delta, the Ozarks, the Central Appalachians, the Southern states, areas along the U.S. border in southwest Texas and New Mexico, and in sparsely populated Great Plains and Prairie states.

Chris Berger, the superintendent of a 1,000-student, three-school district in the Missouri Ozarks region, lives with that shortage. A new school year started Aug. 1, yet he has no applicants for his district’s lone foreign-language teaching position. Based on experience, he doesn’t expect any.

“We face some significant challenges, especially in the high-need areas—math, foreign language, technology, those things are a bear,” said Mr. Berger, who oversees the Laclede County R-1 district that includes Conway, a town of 743 people some 40 miles from Springfield, Mo.

Mr. Berger doesn’t have firm retention numbers for his district. Yet he estimates that Conway loses five to 10 of its 80 teachers each year, mostly from relocation and retirement. The ones who leave often get jobs in larger schools closer to home, usually in Springfield or Lebanon, Mo., the towns where approximately half his teachers live.

The ease of filling those vacancies depends on the job.

“For an elementary position, we may get 15 to 20 applicants,” Mr. Berger said. “But for foreign language, … we may get none or one or two.”

Geographic isolation remains a factor in recruitment. Yet rural educators also cite an increasing impact from pressure to turn around low student performance on standardized tests in a minimum of time.

The most effective strategies, Mr. Berger said, are to develop inside strengths and recruit close by.

“You find local talent, and you build on it,” Mr. Berger said.

‘Grow Your Own’

Albert Bryant, 21, graduated as the valedictorian of his 18-student high school class in Everton, Mo., population 322. This fall, he will be back in a high school classroom in Greenfield, Mo., population 1,358, for practice teaching.

“I really, really want to change the view people have of rural schools,” said Mr. Bryant. “They think of rural schools as having a stigma; they are smaller, they have bad teachers, and so on. But rural schools are not bad schools. They are different schools.”

Mr. Bryant, a rising senior at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., is one of 18 recruits in the new Ozarks Teacher Corps, which takes rural Missouri college students and prepares them to go back to their hometowns, or nearby, to fill school jobs.

The students, juniors and seniors, get $4,000-a-year scholarships and membership in the Rural School and Community Trust’s Schools Innovation Network, which provides support and resources for rural teachers. The students in turn must agree to teach in a rural school at least three years.

They prepare by serving as teacher interns in small schools and exploring rural education issues in classroom and community work.

The program is financed with a $1.7 million charitable donation. It’s the brainchild of the Rural Schools Partnership, an initiative by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks that focuses on strengthening public schools in that region.

John White, the deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education, said earlier this year that Washington will watch this new program as a model.

Mr. Bryant plans to teach high school math. A deciding factor for him: His high school’s lone math teacher was so poor, Mr. Bryant said, his classes drove away nearly all the students. Classmates came to Mr. Bryant for help.

He is realistic about what he will find in a small, rural high school classroom.

“I expect to have to inspire them to achieve,” he said of the students he’ll have. “I expect to have to overcome that stigma mentality.”

Yet teachers have a better chance of making a difference in a rural community, he said.

“It’s a smaller atmosphere, and people know each other,” Mr. Bryant said, “If you can get people involved, it can feed off itself and start to have a real impact.”

Mr. Berger, the superintendent in Conway, Mo., said that potential is a powerful draw for his teachers.

“You’re going to know every teacher in the building. You will know every student on a first-name basis, and their parents and their brothers and their sisters,” he said.

Jessica Joiner, 28, of Lebanon, Mo., also joined the Ozarks Teacher Corps. She will graduate from Drury next May with plans to teach elementary education. She grew up in tiny Owensville, Mo.

“It had a gas station,” she said.

Deciding to teach in a rural community was an easy choice.

“I want to make a difference where someone made a difference for me,” she said.

She expects her biggest challenge to be the impact poverty has had on students.

“If you grew up in poverty and were not taught to strive, you have to see something different,” she said. “Part of a teacher’s role in rural communities is to impart that striving to students.”

Ms. Joiner said rural communities have strengths that help compensate for the challenges of lower pay and fewer living amenities.

“That rural community—I’ve seen it a thousand times—they’re going to back you when you triumph, and they’re going to back you when you don’t,” she said. “That’s worth a lot.”

Both aspiring teachers said the resources and experience a program such as the Ozarks Teacher Corps provides could make the difference between success and failure for new educators in a challenging rural environment.

“By the time you start [teaching], you have a built-in support group with other teachers and access to resources such as webinars,” Mr. Bryant said.

Sense of Place

Gary Funk, the president of the corps, said the project’s promise grows out of its focus on place-based education, which engages students and school staff members in solving community problems.

“What these young people are being exposed to is not just how to teach,” Mr. Funk said. “They will be exposed to economic, political, and cultural issues in the community where they live and will be teaching.”

James B. Beddow of the Rural Learning Center at the University of South Dakota, in Vermillion, and the chairman of the Rural School and Community Trust, thinks the teacher-corps approach is ready to take root broadly in rural states.

“We’ve sensed some energy afoot around the country for a national rural-teacher corps,” said Mr. Beddow. “We’re lining up interviews with those who do what we do.”

South Dakota has proved to be fertile ground for another such program. The state has the highest percentage of small, rural school districts in the nation, with 76.9 percent of its districts in that category, according to nces numbers. It’s also among the states having high numbers of high-poverty districts, according to research by the Rural School and Community Trust.

Those factors have led the University of South Dakota’s school of education to redesign its teacher-preparation programs to include a rural-teacher track. Candidates are identified as freshmen, assigned a sophomore project, then placed in rural schools for their entire fourth year of study. The university also mentors new rural teachers for two years.

Mr. Beddow’s center helped develop that program and designs the sophomore projects.

“We’re working with students using mentors to help them discover what’s different about teaching in rural areas than in a larger system,” Mr. Beddow said.

Working With Strengths

In rural Halifax County, N.C., two persistently low-achieving schools—Enfield Middle and Southeast Halifax High—will split $5 million in federal School Improvement Grant money beginning this coming school year to try one of four school turnaround models under that federal program. Both schools have chosen the “transformation” model, which includes such steps as replacing the principal and making schools more community-oriented.

The question in this sparsely populated county, where only one school out of 11 made adequate yearly progress on the 2009-10 state report card, is where an infusion of the right leadership might come from.

“Because of the concentrated nature of the difficulties, it’s not an area many people have been willing to work,” said Ms. Fusarelli, of NC State’s college of education.

She hopes the university’s new Northeast Leadership Academy will be a critical talent pipeline. That program takes master’s-level instruction in school administration to 25 teachers and central-office employees in seven rural, high-need, low-achieving districts in the state’s northeast corridor, including Halifax. It’s funded with a $2.4 million state education department grant.

The academy will begin this month training veteran teachers to move into principals’ jobs in their districts.

The educators in the program must make three-year commitments to work in high-need schools in the seven targeted districts. Those districts already have agreed to hire the academy’s graduates first when assistant principal and principal jobs open.

“You have to work with your strengths,” Ms. Fusarelli said. “We focus on helping principals turn around poor-performing teachers rather than replacing them.”

Growing skilled rural school leaders from within permanently strengthens rural schools, she said.

“You can’t understand the complexities of the community from the outside; you can’t go in from the outside and ‘fix’ it,” said Ms. Fusarelli. “It won’t be sustainable; it won’t be authentic.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as Rural Schools Grow Leaders to Suit Needs

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